Tarpon Springs, Weeki Wachee & Ybor City: Bus trip #2

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Tarpon Springs, Weeki Wachee & Ybor City: Bus trip #2

For our final day, the SCA planned a bang-up bus tour that had us driving north out of St. Petersburg on US 19, up the coast to Tarpon Springs and Weeki Wachee, winding up with dinner at the famed Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. Here’s our route (sorry the map was funky right above Tarpon Springs, so I improvised a little!)

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As we wended our way out of friendly downtown St. Petersburg, we were told the story of the “green benches”: in 1916 they passed a city ordinance requiring the use of standardized benches and St. Petersburg became the “City of the Green Benches”. At one point, there were more than 7,000 benches located throughout the downtown area. By the 1960’s jokes began circulating thanks to publicity in Look and Life Magazines which showed the elderly population sitting on the benches (there were even blood pressure machines posted on sidewalks) and St. Pete’s was becoming know as “God’s waiting room”. After that the city council decided to project a more youthful image and painted all the benches pastel colors, but to no avail, in 1967 all the benches were removed.
I love this card of people sitting on the green benches; the sender has written a little note at the bottom with arrows pointing to the couple in the middle: “The Kings from Middletown, NY”!

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The bus took us up N. 4th Street (the route I walked the day before for my photo ops) and passed some of the great motels we all admired. (You have to admit, not too many groups would be fascinated by old motels and their signs – and that’s what makes us who we are!!) The famed Sunken Gardens (one of the oldest roadside attractions in the U.S.) was just a stone’s throw from downtown, and we made a quick tour there through the lush tropical forest with ponds and beautiful plantings. In 1903 George Turner, a plumber by trade, purchased a large parcel of land with a big swamp on it and due to his creativity and technical skills – transformed it into a tropical paradise. I found these great old postcards in my collection.

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And this picture I took there of the Angel Trumpets.

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We made a brief stop at the legendary Kapok Tree Inn Restaurant site in Clearwater – a surreal location that now is home to Sam Ash music store and a school of dance. Evidently back in the day, this was THE place to have your wedding, prom, or special occasion. My seat mate on the bus – Thom, what a fab and fun time we had together –  partner grew up in Bradenton and had his prom there. The gardens are over the top with Grecian statuary, fountains and beautiful plants.

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And now on to our lunch destination and one of my favorite stops on the trip, the sponge docks at Tarpon Springs! If you’re visiting this part of Florida – don’t miss this fabulous tourist destination! According to the literature “Tarpon Springs is the Sponge Capitol of the World”! “An important development in Tarpon Springs, and one that was to change the character of the town forever was the introduction of sponge diving as the primary method of sponge harvesting. This innovation was the bainchild of John Cocoris, the first Greek man to come to Tarpon Springs, arriving in 1896. In 1905 he and five other Greek men started a prosperous sponge diving business. word of their success spread to Greece quickly and the migration of Greek people to Tarpon Springs continues to this day.” They brought with them all the traditions of their homeland which include great food (many Greek restaurants abound) and their religious ceremonies.

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My absolute favorite business in town was Spongeorama!  I actually LOVE this shot with the little kid peeking out!

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Nestled in the back of the retail store is an old museum with displays of the sponge divers that have not been updated since (my guess) the late 1940’s. They also have a fair bit of dust on them too indicating something to be cherished, as well as something that may not be around forever. Really compelling scenarios are depicted. Enjoy these photos of the displays.

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Next great tourist destination that was coming our way was the ever popular Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the legendary mermaid show! But first we were treated along the way to two roadside dinosaurs (the first small pink one was on the other side of the bus and I couldn’t get a picture – but thanks to Rick Kilby – here’s a great shot he took of it).

Next great tourist destination that was coming our way was the ever popular Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the legendary mermaid show! But first we were treated along the way to two roadside dinosaurs (the first small pink one was on the other side of the bus and I couldn’t get a picture – but thanks to Rick Kilby – here’s a great shot he took of it).

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The second one was really special – a former Sinclair gas station, now home to Harold’s Auto Service, in Springhill, Florida.

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We arrived a bit late to Weeki Wachee (named by the Seminole Indians – it means “little spring” or “winding river”), so we had to run fast to make it to the 3:00 Mermaid Show.

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We entered the theater from the top – the seating was all downhill from us and there were curtains hanging, so you couldn’t see the windows. A few of us were fortunate enough to snare a couple of seats in the front row! So we had a great angle for snapping some great all blue pics of the gals underwater. Sadly, a few of our group were too late and couldn’t see the show. So sorry for Nancy, our pres – who lost out.   🙁
I’m assuming they’ve retouched this photo to bring back the pinks and reds – following is all that came out on my camera (all blue despite my efforts in Photoshop!) – still fun though!

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Before I go onto the history of this sweet place, I really need to acknowledge these amazing ladies! They are quite the athletes! Can you imagine staying underwater holding your breath to perform in  a show at 15-20 feet down (with no weights holding you down)? We had the great honor after the performance to speak with one of the “veteran” mermaids – probably in her early 70’s and what a gal she was! She said “once a mermaid, always a mermaid” and told us some fun tales about the old days – they had a show every hour on the hour (1/2 hour show) and the last one was at 5:00! She said that was pretty rough – hard to imagine the life of a Florida mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs, isn’t it? Glory Days?!

Back to history folks – how fascinating that Florida history is so imbued with incredible people creating incredible attractions. Here’s just a tiny snippet from Weeki Wachee’s website:

In 1946, Newton Perry, a former U.S. Navy man who trained SEALS to swim underwater in World War II, scouted out Weeki Wachee as a good site for a new business. At the time, U.S. 19 was a small two-lane road. All the other roads were dirt; there were no gas stations, no groceries, and no movie theaters. More alligators and black bears lived in the area than humans.

The spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars. The junk was cleared out and Newt experimented with underwater breathing hoses and invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor, rather than from a tank strapped onto the back. With the air hose, humans could give the appearance of thriving twenty feet underwater with no breathing apparatus.

An 18-seat theater was built into the limestone, submerged six feet below the surface of the spring, so viewers could look right into the natural beauty of the ancient spring.
Newt scouted out pretty girls and trained them to swim with air hoses and smile at the same time. He taught them to drink Grapette, a non-carbonated beverage, eat bananas underwater and do aquatic ballets. He put a sign out on U.S. 19: WEEKI WACHEE.

The first show at the Weeki Wachee Springs underwater theater opened on October 13, 1947 — the same day that Kukla, Fran and Ollie first aired on that newfangled invention called television, and one day before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The mermaids performed synchronized ballet moves underwater while breathing through the air hoses hidden in the scenery.

We had a rather long, non-eventful drive back to our dinner destination Ybor City – and our fearless leader, Nancy Sturm, kept us entertained with a raffle where everyone on the bus won some sort of kitschy item donated by one of the board members. I had the distinct honor of winning an ashtray in the shape of a sombrero from a must-see east coast roadside attraction South of the Border in South Carolina! It graces my window sill in my studio and I will forever be reminded of this momentous road trip when I see it!

We also watched a documentary about the development of Florida that helped put everything in perspective. Florida is a 20th Century state! with so much of it’s real estate booms and busts happening post WWI. The verdict is still out whether all this development has been good or bad for the state – how is one to know?

On to Ybor City and dinner at the famed Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1905. I was astounded to discover at this location they can seat 1,700 people at one time! As a former restaurateur this number sounded horrifying! However, I must admit, our large group of 75 was seated in a beautiful, dimly lit dining room and charmed by four sexy ladies and one gentleman performing tango and flamenco dances – and a delicious dinner. A great final celebration for this grand SCA conference.

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From Wikipedia:

Ybor City (/ˈiːbɔr/ ee-bor)[1] is a historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida located just northeast of downtown. It was founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers and was populated by thousands of immigrants, mainly from Spain, Cuba, and Italy. For the next 50 years, workers in Ybor City’s cigar factories would roll millions of cigars annually.

Beginning in the 1990’s artists started moving into the old buildings and now the town is a hip destination with lots of great restaurants and bars. We just had a few minutes after dinner to stroll down the street and snap a few shots. Didn’t see too many vintage signs, but on a Saturday night, the place was hoppin’!

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And what could be a more fitting end to this final evening than our drive back across the Gandy Bridge from Tampa to St. Pete – found this card in my collection – I’m sure they’ve expanded the bridge since then! Via con Dios to all my fellow conferees. I was up at the crack of dawn and boarded a 7:30 flight back to New York. Next time – I’m staying longer!

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Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some of my favorite photos of signs and sights from the trip. Thanks for coming along for the ride/read! MAE

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